Profiles in Scholarship

Double Play

Curtis J. Milhaupt

For Curtis J. Milhaupt ’89, advanced research on Japan and other Asian nations 
allows for a more nuanced view of legal systems both at home and abroad

By Peter Kiefer

Winter 2012

Professor Curtis J. Milhaupt ’89 can recall with crystal-like clarity the first time he wandered the streets of the Shinjuku section of Tokyo. He was an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame and had just arrived in Japan on his first trip to Asia. Milhaupt was not carrying a map, did not have the address of his host family, and had only studied Japanese for a few months.

It was absolute bliss.

“For a 19-year-old kid from a small town in Wisconsin, Tokyo was about as different as you could get,” says Milhaupt from his office in Jerome Greene Hall. “I guess you might say that I like being disoriented.”

Much has changed since that day in 1981, for both Milhaupt—the Law School’s Parker Professor of Comparative Corporate Law and Fuyo Professor of Japanese Law—and for the country that quickly became his life’s passion. When he first visited and fell in love with Japan, it was still considered a developing country but was seen as being on the cusp of elevating to a position of economic power.

While Milhaupt earned an undergraduate degree in government and international studies, Japan fully emerged as a global economic force. After graduating from the Law School in 1989, Milhaupt went to work for the New York City–based firm Shearman & Sterling in its sovereign debt and mergers and acquisitions departments. But when an opportunity to return to Japan arose in 1992, thanks to a Japan Foundation fellowship to pursue advanced legal studies at the University of Tokyo, his trajectory towards academia was all but assured.

Milhaupt began teaching at the Law School in 1999 and heads the Center for Japanese Legal Studies. He has published seven books during his time in Morningside Heights and has expanded his focus to include Korea, Brazil, China, and India—his recent work explores how India, China, and other nations have achieved economic success despite the absence of robust legal systems. The Stanford Law Review will publish Milhaupt’s latest paper, which focuses on the structure of state-owned enterprises in China and received mention in two issues of The Economist.

In discussing his work, Milhaupt notes that he takes advantage of every opportunity to talk about his research with colleagues at the Law School, and with students in the classroom. “We have such an incredibly diverse and worldly student body,” he says. “I feel very privileged to be able to teach and exchange ideas with students. This is a real motivation for me as a professor.”  

When not teaching or, for instance, engaging in research on the mechanisms of Chinese state capitalism, Milhaupt says he invariably finds himself around baseball diamonds. His teenage son, Conrad, a talented shortstop and pitcher, plays for several traveling teams that compete throughout the New York metropolitan area. In 2011, Conrad’s local squad won the district championship, which includes virtually all of Manhattan.

Milhaupt attends many games, and this past summer he may have been the only person with a schedule more jam-packed than that of his son’s teams. He visited India, then traveled to South Korea, North Korea, Beijing, Tokyo, and Hawaii—his late wife Terry’s home state.

Though much of his research tends to be outward-looking, Milhaupt realizes the nuanced intellectual perks of his life’s work. “One of the benefits of being a comparativist is the deeper understanding that you reach about your own legal system,” he says. “Studying a foreign legal system exposes the assumptions—oftentimes unstated or unconscious—that shape our attitudes toward law.”

Peter Kiefer is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, among other publications.